In recent years, concerns regarding school mental health has been called a "silent epidemic." Up to 20% of children in the United States may show symptoms of a psychiatric disorder in a given year. Children can experience many of the same conditions as adults, including depression, anxiety, ADHD and substance abuse.
The more recent era of social media and online bullying makes intervention and treatment more urgent than ever. Left untreated, psychiatric disorders can have a profound impact on a child's academic experience, contributing to chronic absence, disruptive behavior, poor achievement and even dropping out.
Homes and schools both share roles in identifying children in need of mental health assistance. At home, even the most observant parent can struggle in knowing when a behavior or academic change is a problem. Physical problems, such as an earache or a high fever, can be easier to identify and lead to a doctor visit without much delay. Changes in behavior or academic performance, however, may be labeled as "just a phase" and largely overlooked.
But it's these changes — increased irritability, declining grades, changes in appetite, changes in sleep patterns, social withdrawal/isolation — that can signal a larger problem that needs addressed. When these changes occur, it's crucial that families keep in close contact with the child's school and share observations.
Kids may see their teachers even more than they see their families during the week. That's why teachers are in a key position to corroborate observed changes or report concerns of their own. Teachers already have a lot on their plate and are responsible for many students throughout the day — so even a quick message from a concerned parent/guardian can lead to a more critical eye of the child concerned. Incorporating the expertise of school social workers, school counselors, and even the principal can also be beneficial in some cases.
If a parent/guardian is concerned, arranging an appointment with a mental health professional is an appropriate next step. This can be done directly with the provider or through pediatrician referral. A thorough psychiatric evaluation can integrate information from the child, parent/guardian, and school to reach an accurate and complete diagnosis. Many evidence-based treatments are available that can lead to a significant improvement in functioning. Depending on the severity of symptoms and preferences of the patient/family in question, treatment may include medication, psychotherapy, changes in social supports or some combination of the three.
Rustin Licht, MD
Dr. Licht has received advanced training to treat psychiatric conditions in children, adolescents and adults. He works with patients on a wide range of mental health disorders. Areas of special interest include ADHD, Tourette's disorder, anxiety disorders (generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder) and depression.